If Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens was a new museum exhibit, would it be the latest blockbuster or more like a visit to a dusty collection behind glass? This spoiler-free movie review attempts to find out, using museum criteria to illuminate the highs and lows of our return to a galaxy far, far away.
Criteria 1: Connects You With The People Around You
I watched the new film opening night flanked by my best-friend from 2nd grade, with whom I first saw the original trilogy, and my more recent daddy-friend, raising a trilogy of his own back home (his oldest two the same age as my kids). We had a blast together, returning to the past and delighting in the new story that unfolded before us.
Criteria 2: Offers Remarkable Specimens From the Collections
Oh, and what a collection… of characters that is. Even with this reboot of the franchise erasing decades of previously-known-as-canon created through novels, games and more, the new writers and directors had a plethora of old friends to invite to the party. However, as much as you might come to see an old favorite (I hope it’s not a stretch to use here the word “dinosaur”) what delights is when you leave having discovered something new. If anything, the new film succeeds and is at its best establishing the new range of characters – those struggling in both sides of the light – and leaving you wanting to see where they go next.
Criteria 3: Transports You To New Worlds
Love the first two trilogies or hate them, there’s no denying one of the main characters has always been the immersive, expressionistic settings. Whether desert, swamp, cloud, or volcano, the films still feel like trips across the galaxy. But with the foregrounding of characters, the new film leaves the backgrounds in, well, the background, and the sense of discovering new worlds in the past.
Criteria 4: Inspires a Sense of Awe and Wonder
On this count, the film is a mixed bag. As the title declares, the new film deals with the return of the force, which at the character-level means watching our new friends discover powers they never knew they had. Somewhat like watching Neo master the constructed illusion of the Matrix, these moments in the film never failed to make a part of me glow bright with the force. But wonder? Now, that’s something else. I’ve never been one to criticize the convoluted politics of Episodes I-III. But at least they made sense. In Episode VII the political context that drives the plot is so scantily drawn, it’s impossible to understand. No spoiler here, but one faction is called the Resistance; but resistance to whom or what is never explained. World-building is about grounding human-scale stories in a vast fictional world you long to explore with eyes full of wonder. Not so, alas, in Episode VII.
Rating: Awe: B+; Wonder: D
Is Episode VII more like returning to a beloved exhibit or visiting a new future-facing temporary exhibit? At times it threatens to sink into the mire of dusty objects behind glass, lacking a knowledgeable and dynamic guide to elucidate meaning and provide a personal connection. But most often, like a nostalgic visit to a beloved exhibit, the film satisfies the warm glow of memory with the insight that comes from a more mature vantage point. Ultimately, however, Episode VII is more like a new exhibit, giving tribute to past curators while clearly establishing an experience more in fit with the new generation, designed to inspire first-time visitors to return again and again in the years to come.